And on the seventh day, the old creation story tells us, God rested. The heavens and the earth, and all they contain, were completed. By the seventh day God had finished the work which God had been doing; and so ceased from all work.
"Barukh ata, adonai eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, osseh ma' asseh b'reishit." In the Hebrew, "Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who made the wonders of creation."
What concerns us here this morning is a soul-question put to every Jew at this time of year, and it is a question that I think many of us have pondered quietly in our souls in 2002. The question is this: "will you be written in the Book of Life?" In cosmic terms, the Book of Life is God's great record of who will receive eternal blessing and who will be denied it. The Jewish religion has no Hell as does the Christian faith; failing to be inscribed in the Book of Life is as close, perhaps, as Jews come to that concept. "Will your name be inscribed in the Book of Life?" Over the past nine days, observant Jews have taken that question seriously. The high holy days present an opportunity for every faithful Jew to assess his or her life and to look honestly and unflinchingly at pain they may have caused others. In this time, they make reconciliation and atonement for those wrongs. Because of God's grace, if one has been written in the Book of Death it is possible to reverse that sentence and change one's ways. What is required, though, is difficult: a direct and sincere apology to those one has harmed. Mere confession is not enough.
Will we be written in the book of Life? When you search your soul, how is it with you? Is there cause for regret? Repentance? Apology? Have you loved yourself as you would be loved, and with the kind of tenderness and forbearance you extend to those who love you? Have you acquainted yourself with the person you are outside of your many roles and responsibilities? Standing naked and unadorned before the throne of your own conscience, are you acceptable in your own sight? If not, this is a good time of year to make it right, or perhaps a bit better.
All religions worth their salt set out rules and ways and hints as to how humans can achieve harmony with the Higher Law. The problem is, many of them teach that the truest way to reach our own most divine potential is to skip out entirely on what you and I might refer to as the "real world." This is simply not an option or a desire for the vast majority of us. But there is a way, a little way, that we can step back on a regular basis and take stock with ourselves, desist from rampant materialism and workaholism, and get back in a more humane stride. It is called the Sabbath, and the Jewish tradition teaches that God created it for our salvation.
Remember the Sabbath day, and when we almost kept it sort of holy? Remember when stores were all closed on Sundays? Remember when the population generally understood the point of that? You might not devote the day to study and prayer, but at the very least, you did not spend it at the Mall worshiping the gods of the Gap and the Lord of Lord & Taylor. I recall enduring some very dull Sundays as a child. Sometimes we went to church in the morning and that was okay, unless my parents stayed forever at coffee hour. Sunday was a day for visiting with my parent's friends, going to see the aunts and uncles and cousins, or just sitting around digesting brunch. As there was no VCR, no CD players, no computers in the home and no Nintendo, we read books or played outside. Occasionally we whined that we were bored, to which my parents usually replied that that was fine, and if I wanted something to do I could go out and weed the driveway. But the dullness was good for me, typically over-extended kid that I was. I think a little bit of boredom is good for children today. There is so little quiet in their lives; so little opportunity for them to learn how to be alone with themselves in a peaceful and non-anxious manner. So little time for them to listen to their own thoughts, to feel the pulse of their own hearts.
Biblically, the institution of the Sabbath day comes during Moses' interview with God at Sinai, during the giving of the ten commandments. Interestingly, the passages on the sabbath are longer than for any of the other commandments. "Remember the Sabbath day, to hallow it. For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YWHW your God: you are not to make any kind of work, not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, not your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast, nor your sojourner that is within your gates. For in six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in it, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore YWHW gave the Sabbath day his blessing, and he hallowed it." (Translated by Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
A day of rest so important, so holy, that God Itself enforces it as part of the ultimate ethical code of His people. This is not like your boss telling you to take the rest of the afternoon off because you don't look well. This is not your travel agent encouraging you to take that weekend in Florida because you deserve it (and because she would like your commission). This is the commander of the universe telling Moses that he and his people must take one day off a week for the sake of creation, for the sake of humanity and for the sake of humanity's relationship to God. Humans must "say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without [our] help. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth. On the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul." (Heschel, p 13)
One of the most lovely and poetic works on the Sabbath was written by Hasidic rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was beautifully attuned to the world of soul as well as to the world of society. What strikes me most about his simple and eloquent book is his discussion of the Sabbath as a way for humankind to break our obsession with material existence -- "the things of space." We labor, says Heschel, for things of space to fill our lives with things we can see, touch, hear, smell, enjoy on the material plane. But what God does through the creation of the Sabbath is to render a holiness in time. Rabbi Heschel tells us that it is a surprising departure from "accustomed religious thinking" that God did not make a sacred place after the creation of heaven and earth. Rather, God created a sacred time.
Heschel explains that Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time." Given the history of the people, this makes sense. A temple can be destroyed; a people dispersed, and so it happened for the Jews many times over thousands of years. But a Sabbath day cannot be burned, smashed or shattered. "The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals" says Heschel, "The seventh day is a palace in time which we build."
I am quoting heavily from Heschel today, but let me give you one more passage from this lovely book, because I find it so powerful: "The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things."
The Sabbath is such a moment. But we must understand that the intent of the day is not to rest so that we can work that much harder in the days to follow. No. We rest for the sake of life itself. If we are appropriately oriented toward the Sabbath, we begin to understand that every day is, in fact, a preparation for the Sabbath. What we do the other six days of the week will plant the seeds of selfhood that we are invited to reacquaint ourselves with on our sabbath day.
So the Sabbath is not so much about abstinence as it is about intimacy: intimacy with Self, with God, with one's purpose in God. Or if you prefer, the sabbath is our occasion to encounter the world's need for us, life's inherent love for us and what we can be, and for what we already are. In this spirit of intimacy, the Jews have beautifully romantic imagery to describe the sabbath: The Jewish people are the bridegroom welcoming and honoring the bride, the Sabbath, which is always referred to in the female pronoun. The Sabbath is always "she."
To hallow the Sabbath day, to sanctify it, is described in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew term "le-kadesh" the same term used in reference to a man betrothing, consecrating a woman. Heschel writes, "[humanity's] relation to the spirit is not one-sided; there is a reciprocity between [humanity] and spirit. . . At the beginning of time there was a longing, the longing of the Sabbath for humankind."
For me, this means that dismissing the necessity of a Sabbath day is like rejecting someone who deeply loves you, who desires intimacy with you. When I began to understand the spiritual power of this, I began to take my days off far more seriously, to guard them as one would carefully reserve quality time for a spouse, or a child.
I began to treasure the part of Jewish tradition that lifts up the mutual desire and yearning between humanity and the spiritual source that is our common origin and end.
For orthodox Jews, welcoming and honoring the Sabbath means doing no work at all. None. No driving a car, or answering a phone, or turning on a light, or cooking. Does this seem like punishment? It is not meant to be. Instead, it is meant to be a radical return to being rather than doing. From an environmental perspective, we can see that such observance of the Sabbath not only gives us a break, it gives the Earth a break as well. All of creation needs a Sabbath time.
Arthur Waskow, a Philadelphia-based Jewish leader who heads the Shalom Center, is at the center of a movement to restore a Sabbatical spirit to our culture. Speaking to the environmental benefits of the Sabbath, Waskow remarked in a recent interview, "Leviticus 26 asks, what happens if you won't let the Earth rest and make a Shabbat? The answer is this: the earth gets to rest anyway. The earth gets to rest through plague and famine and exile. The earth does get to rest. The only question is whether human beings learn to live with this law in a joyful and celebratory way or whether the earth rests at our expense." (Call To Action, Spirituality and Justice. Interview by Bill Wylie-Kellerman) Those who have farmed the land have always known this. You don't plant and harvest every field every year. It will strip the soil of essential nutrients and the land will not yield.
I appreciate the urgency of Waskow's tone. He speaks not only with concern for Earth but with deep love for all of us, with grief about the fact that we use and use and create and make and spend and build and go and go and keep on going without cultural permission or inner respect for the necessity of STOPPING. His call for a Sabbath renewal in this country is not a sectarian concern; he is not speaking merely to Jews but to the whole nation, which he believes is collectively suffering the madness of obsessive doing.
Waskow's work is not merely toward spiritual health but economic justice as well, for he has seen and analyzed how the lack of personal and societal respect for the necessity of a Sabbath damaged us emotionally and economically. Like the ancient Romans who disdained the Jews for their Sabbath rest, accusing them of rebelliousness and indolence, modern day Americans have largely internalized the attitude that ceaseless production is the measure of one's worth. Am I right? Is there anyone here who measures their own worth (or the worth of others) by their work?
This is an issue that transcends class. All kinds of people are overworked. At the top of the economic brackets, executive and top management types overwork and reduce the numbers and quality of jobs available to others. Think about it. If one person in a company puts in a 60 or 70-hour week, not only are they overworked, the company doesn't have to hire another part-time employee. Multiply this times hundreds of thousands of American employees. The 8-hour work day (for which the labor rights activists of the 1930's fought so hard) is a rarity nowadays. Our perspectives have changed over the decades, and now some of us have not even had time to realize that we have lost our way. Most tragic, I think, is that our overwork has undermined our ability to create community. When we are all exhausted, we simply have no time to devote to the establishment of community programs, relationships and resources.
Arthur Waskow writes:
"So who is to say it's ‘overwork' if people choose to do it? Anyone who really feels burnt out can just slow down, no? Any malaise that people feel is just a result of their own choices, no? And of their refusal to face the consequences of their own choices, no?
… There is an economic and cultural system that is driving most Americans into overwork. There are deep human needs for rest and reflection, for family time and community time. That system is grinding those deep human needs under foot. And that system can be changed." (Art Waskow, "Free Time For a Free People" from "The Witness" Jan-Feb 2000)
How? Waskow's campaign, called Free Time For Free People, urges American political, economic and cultural leaders :
It says in Genesis "on the seventh day God finished His work." But the seventh day, we thought, was entirely for rest. Why does it not say "on the sixth day God finished His work?" Ancient rabbis concluded that there must have been at least one act of creation on the seventh day. A little piece de resistance. On the seventh day, God created menuha. This is a gorgeous word. Menuha. You could translate it as "rest," but it has a far richer meaning than that. Menuha is "tranquility, serenity, peace and repose." When the miserable Job of the Old Testament later laments the former joy he has known, he refers to it as menuha. "It is the state wherein [humanity] lies still, wherein the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust. The essence of good life is menuha." What a blessed peace.
So perhaps we could strive for menuha in our families on our chosen Sabbath day. Instead of waiting for menuha to come to us, we might actively seek it. Leave the house and walk in the woods. Ride bicycles rather than drive the car. Tell the children we will not fight on the Sabbath day, we are seeking menuha and we all need it! Eat very simple meals (it's really okay to have cereal for dinner some of the time). Keep the television off. Unplug the computer. Meet with neighbors and friends for a book discussion, a quilting bee, or to play music together. Take up the study of poetry or Scripture or any form of literature you enjoy. Come to church. Go look at some art, or create some of your own. Put away money; try not to spend any on material goods or to think about finances. Don't do your taxes. Stare at the ceiling. Walk in the garden instead of pruning and weeding it. One day a week.
The point is that this is not a luxury. It is for the sake of creation itself. That this should seem so radical a commitment should tell us something about how deeply we've been absorbed into the things of space, rather than constructing our lives as a palace in time.
Just being here, we are declaring ourselves in favor of the Sabbath. Just by being here, we are making a statement about wanting to feel the value of our being rather than our doing. I want to encourage you to make the hour of worship a true Sabbath observance by considering the Postlude a part of the service, and to receive the musical offering as a gift for your spirit. If you wish to leave for coffee hour before the conclusion of the Postlude it would be nice to do so quietly. But why not enjoy the music? How many times during the week do you get such a pleasant moment?
May your Sabbath day be strength and solace to you. May you keep it holy, as holy as you can, honoring creation's need for you and your place in it. In doing so, may you be written in the Book of Life for a sweet new year. L'shanah Tovah. Happy New Year. Amen. Shalom.
(I recommend the Shalom Center website www.shalomctr.org to anyone interested in the works of Art Waskow.)